TOKYO — Delicate negotiations were underway Tuesday to secure the release of a Japanese hostage and a Jordanian pilot held by Islamic State militants, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faced questions over his government’s handling of the crisis.
A Japanese envoy in the Jordanian capital, Amman, voiced hopes late Monday that both Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and the Jordanian pilot would be able to return home.
“I hope we can all firmly work hard and join hands to cooperate between the two countries (Japan and Jordan), in order for us to see the day when the Jordanian pilot and our Japanese national Mr. Goto can both safely return to their own countries with smiles on their faces,” said Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister and lawmaker who was sent to Amman to coordinate efforts to save two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group.
It was the first mention by a Japanese official of Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, who has been held by the extremist Islamic State group after crashing in December. It was unclear when the pilot’s possible release became part of the discussion, and reports in Jordan said some officials thought the militants may be aiming at the release of other prisoners.
But the issue of a prisoner swap is sensitive, given Jordanian concern over the pilot, and Nakayama had no fresh news when he emerged from the Japanese Embassy on Tuesday.
“There are other parties involved, so I don’t want to comment on details of the negotiations,” he said.
Goto, a journalist, was seized in late October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, an adventurer who was captured by the militants last summer.
Over the weekend, an unverified video surfaced showing a still photo of Goto, 47, holding what appears to be a photo of Yukawa’s body. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Goto, saying his captors wanted the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 60 people.
The message retracted a demand for payment of $200 million in ransom for the two Japanese, made in an earlier online message, and said Yukawa had been killed. It threatened to kill Goto unless al-Rishawi was released.
Japanese officials are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa was killed. However, the new message varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, and The Associated Press could not verify its contents and whether they actually reflect the group’s demands.
The Japanese side has avoided direct references to al-Rishawi and a possible prisoner swap, while emphasizing its hopes for cooperation from Jordan and longstanding ties with its government and its royal family.
Securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a propaganda coup for the Islamic State, enabling the group to reaffirm links to al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Rishawi fled but was captured after her explosive belt failed to detonate in the attack in Jordan. She pleaded not guilty.
The mother of another Jordanian prisoner, Ziad al-Karboli, told AP on Tuesday that her family was told that the Islamic State group was also seeking his release as part of a swap. It was unclear whether it was related to a possible deal involving the Japanese hostage.
Al-Karboli, an aide to a former al-Qaida leader in Iraq, was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a Jordanian citizen.
In Tokyo on Tuesday, an interfaith gathering of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians holding placards and banners reading, “Free Goto” and “I am Kenji,” gathered outside the parliament.
“Islam is not about someone calling himself Muslim and committing the crime of killing. This is not Islam,” said Muhammad Yusuf Othman, a Muslim teacher.
In Japan, some are critical of Goto and Yukawa for traveling to the risky area.
“It’s not that they were in Japan living peacefully and were kidnapped out of the blue. They decided to go to Syria and were seized by the militants,” said Kenji Arai, 46, an accountant.
“Do you think taxpayers would agree that they should save the hostages’ lives?” he said.
Some also are unhappy that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking a more active role in Middle East affairs.
In parliamentary debate, lawmaker Seiji Maehara of the opposition Democratic Party questioned Abe on how the government has handled the hostages’ cases since Yukawa was seized in August.
He noted Abe’s explicit mention of the Islamic State in an announcement of $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the extremists – a move mentioned in the videos issued by the militants.
Japan has no military role in the conflict, but Abe has been pushing to expand the role for Japan’s troops – one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist constitution adopted after the nation’s defeat in World War II.
Abe defended his performance. Japan’s aid is “providing food and medicine to save the lives of more than 10 million people, including refugees and children who have lost their homes, shivering in cold and suffering from illnesses,” he said.
“If we fear the risks so much that we succumb to the terrorists’ threats, we won’t be able to make any humanitarian contributions to countries surrounding the area of conflict,” Abe said. “Our country will never bow to terrorists. We will continue our humanitarian support in our own unique way.”
Abe has pointed to the hostage crisis as a reason for Japan to improve its defense.
Japan relies heavily on Middle Eastern oil and gas, but its diplomatic pipeline in the region is thin, experts say.
“When it comes to Islamic affairs and Islamic law, the government’s expertise and connections are extremely weak,” said Ko Nakata, a Muslim convert and former Islamic expert at the Japanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Last week, he offered to try to help secure the hostages’ release but there was no public response from the government.
Abe’s envoy Nakayama, 44, is a sports science graduate and former advertising agency employee who studied in the United States and France. He has scant experience in Middle East affairs, though he has served as deputy foreign minister several times and has joined defense and national security panels.
Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Ken Moritsugu, Kaori Hitomi, Koji Ueda and Emily Wang in Tokyo contributed to this report.